Richard Williams soaking in maroon, white

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Richard Williams, the man who guided Mississippi State to the 1996 Final Four, arrived in Omaha late last night for the College World Series championship series.

“This is more fun, being a fan,” Williams said by cellphone today. “That, back in ’96, was all business. That was work. This here is just plain fun.”

Williams Bulldogs won four straight NCAA Tournament games, including upset victories over UConn and Cincinnati in the Sweet 16, to reach the Final Four at the Meadowlands. They then lost to Syracuse in the semifinals, one game short of playing for the national championship.

“There are some similarities,” Williams said. “You’re on the biggest stage in your sport. But there are a lot of differences, too. In the Final Four, you’re playing for the first time on a different court in a different atmosphere.

“This baseball team has played and won three straight games in this stadium with these huge crowds. They are used to the surroundings. It won’t seem that new to them.

“That was all new to us back in ’96, plus it was New York, which is a whole ‘nother animal. I mean we pull up to our hotel and there’s Mike Tirico sticking a microphone in our face. I’m telling you that was different. I can definitely see why teams that go back to the Final Four a second time generally do better. That first time, you have no idea what you are getting into.”

I asked Williams if he did anything differently, coaching-wise, to prepare his Bulldogs for the sport’s biggest stage.

“No, not really,” he answered, “I wasn’t worried about that group being tight. That was a loose group, a lot like what I’ve seen of this baseball team on TV. Nothing seems to bother these guys.

“Our group was loose, too, at least it was until that Syracuse game. When we were standing in the tunnel before taking the floor, I got a sense that we might be too tight. And we played tight that night for the first time. I don’t know what I would do differently, if anything, in retrospect.”

Williams said he decided to go to Omaha Sunday on the spur of the moment.

“And I’m so glad I did,” Williams said. “I am seeing so many old friends and people who followed us to the Regionals and the Final Four.

“I’ll tell you what, I don’t know how much it means on the field, but State has taken over this town. I don’t see anything but maroon and white everywhere. When I got up this morning State fans were wrapped around the stadium in line to get general admission tickets. This is something to see.”

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